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Whistleblowers Need Better Protection

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
February 1, 2021

The idea of having whistleblowers reporting on corruption within their own organizations is an important prerequisite for revealing and deterring wrongdoing. Laws have been put in place in various parts of the world for the protection of whistleblowers, but are they always applied? And do all countries offer protection to whistleblowers?

It is yet a very tricky issue. Even the definition of a whistleblower is contested. The general consensus in defining who qualifies as a whistleblower covers persons who have good intentions, and have collected reasonable evidence, to report on corruption or wrongdoing occurring within an organization they are closely working with. They then figure that the only way to stop the wrongdoing is by reporting it to the authorities, or to the general public. However, differences occur about what constitutes good intentions and reasonable evidence, and differences occur about what the relationship of the whistleblower to the organization should be. Should he or she be working within the organization? Should we protect whistleblowers coming from both the public and private sectors? What if the whistleblower is a consultant, or a temporary employee? Should we exclude from the protection persons working with the military and intelligence organizations?

Lately the famous WikiLeaks case caused a renewed commotion in international media. The issue was brought up about whether Julian Assange, who was responsible for leaking thousands of confidential documents to the public in 2010, should be extradited to the United States, from where he currently is imprisoned in the United Kingdom. If he gets tried in United States courts he may face espionage charges that may lead to an imprisonment term reaching 175 years. Media reports were not sure whether his leaks qualify as acceptable whistle blowing actions, or whether they were a violation of the secrecy vows he made to the military establishment he belonged to. They were also worried that if Assange gets prosecuted, this would be a step back from media freedom, and its ability to hold government accountable, sometimes through having to publish classified documents. Assange did not feel safe in his own country, so he chose to flee and seek asylum someplace else.

Countries vary in the degree of protection they afford to whistleblowers. Some have separate laws enacted for that purpose, and others cover the protection of whistleblowers as sections in other existing laws. The United States Department of Labor has clear guidelines published on its website for whistleblowers needing to file a complaint. The American law does not protect whistleblowers who belong to the military or the Intelligence Agencies. Meanwhile, protecting whistleblowers in the United Kingdom is covered by the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) that explains how if the person reporting is acting with the public interest in mind, then he or she should not suffer from any retaliation. The same level of strong protection exists in many of the developed countries. Whereas India, for example, affords protection to whistleblowers who are working in the public sector, Japan and South Korea afford protection to both public and private sector employees.

We all watch movies where whistleblowers are protected by the police, moved to different countries and given different identities. This may, or may not, be true. In reality, the kind of protection usually given includes providing ways for confidential and sometimes even anonymous reporting, protection against retaliation by the employer, such as dismissal, salary reductions, demotions, movement to other geographical areas that are less appealing or exclusion from job perks and benefits. Protection may cover financial compensation for losses incurred as a result of the whistleblowing, and may include giving out awards, or placing the whistleblower in a different position. It may also cover sanctions against potential libel or defamation that the person may be subjected to. Awards and incentives work well when the whistleblowing has to do with tax return violations, and so the whistleblower may end up getting a percentage of the tax revenue collected as a result of his/her reporting.

It turns out that many African and Arab countries are not providing adequate protection to whistleblowers. Only seven countries in Africa, out of 54, have a whistleblowing protection law. In Egypt, there is limited protection given to whistleblowers, yet this did not prevent many to report violations over the years, and to bear the brunt of their actions. Some whistleblowing cases had relatively happy endings, such as the case of Neimat Fouad reporting on the plan by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in the 1980s to sell out land beside the historical pyramids to private investors. As a result of her whistleblowing, the project was suspended and she was heralded as a public hero. In other instances, over the past decades, when others pointed out specific cases dealing with rigging of parliamentary elections, or with environmental pollution by chemical waste, or with cancerous insecticides being used in agriculture, it was not always a happy ending, and the outcome the whistleblowers had to endure ranged anywhere between demotion to imprisonment.

African countries are losing out on the opportunity of using whistleblowing protection as a means of both revealing and deterring corruption across the board. Perhaps they need to reconsider.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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